New town employee Della McKinnon made a simple request: she wanted to post a flyer. National Lupus Awareness month happened to be May, with May 16 a “Put On Purple” day to hammer the point home.
“They said, yeah, you can put it up. Tell us more,” said McKinnon, who has been managing records for Garner’s police since joining the town staff in March.
She told them more: largely, that she has had lupus for 26 years. The town staff rallied to amplify her small effort to enhance awareness for a disease about which many know little beyond its role as a frequent incorrect stab at a diagnosis on the popular TV show “House.”
Ronnie Williams declared May Lupus Awareness Month in Garner, town employees wore purple on the 16th and the Parks and Recreation made a “huge poster.”
“I was just overtaken by them getting involved in such a way like that,” McKinnon said.
Lupus is a chronic disease in which a person’s immune system attacks the body’s own organs and tissues. The disease manifests in a varying array of symptoms, making it tough to diagnose (and a frequent guess of Gregory House and his diagnostic team.) Since the symptoms result from damage to any of a variety of systems, they tend to mimic diseases and disorders associated more specifically with those symptoms.
“Every patient is different,” McKinnon said.
In McKinnon’s case, she most frequently suffers from joint pain and severe fatigue. Other common symptoms can include rashes (in particular a butterfly-shaped rash on the face), headaches, hair loss, ulcers, anemia or abnormal blood-clotting. The American College of Rheumatology lists 11 common criteria, and if you’ve had any four of them there’s a good chance you have lupus.
There is believed to be a genetic susceptibility, though the disease is known to be triggered by sunlight, stress or certain drugs. There is no cure but the symptoms can generally be managed.
McKinnon, a 25-year-old police officer when initially diagnosed, said awareness has come a long way in the last quarter century, and that the progress is no trivial matter.
“You wake up tired. And not just tired. Like you can’t physically get out of bed,” McKinnon said of the fatigue, which can be particularly difficult to deal with.
She helps facilitate a Wake County lupus support group, one that helps people with the conditions adapt to their condition and symptoms.
She said when she was diagnosed they weren’t sure what to do with her, moving her to 911 operator and then to work on crime scene investigations. The disability forced her to leave law enforcement for a time.
During the interim she took unrelated jobs and attended divinity school, where she earned a masters at Duke University and doctorate at Apex School of Theology. She later worked for Duke where she assisted with research.
Ultimately she got back into law enforcement, catching on with Durham Police in 2012, only that time as a civilian employee. She switched to Garner in part because of the higher volume of work and stress at a bigger station in Durham, something that flares up her condition.
“It’s been wonderful, so different, being in a family-type environment,” said McKinnon, who nevertheless said she had nothing bad to say about the people she worked with in Durham. “I never thought I’d have the support like I have today.”